September 5, 2012

Singers form lasting harmonies

Queen Charlotte Chorus makes music fun with song, dance in the barbershop style.

Queen Charlotte Chorus and its leader, Cindy Shook, are on a mission: They want to harmonize the world.

The women’s chorus is committed to education, competition and performance of barbershop harmony, one of America’s original art forms. Queen Charlotte Chorus is a chapter of Sweet Adelines International, an independent, nonprofit music association comprising thousands of female singers worldwide.

The message of Sweet Adelines, says QCC membership chairman Suzanne Wittebort, is short and sweet: “Real women. Real harmony. Real fun.”

Not just for men

Associated primarily with male singers in the beginning, barbershop harmony eventually caught on with women. Sweet Adelines was founded in Tulsa, Okla., in 1945. According to Sweet Adelines International’s website, there are now 500 chapters with 23,000 singers in the U.S. and 14 other countries.

QCC was founded in 1965 and over the years has had as many as 90 members at a time. With 34 members currently, ranging from age 19 to 83, the group has launched a membership drive that will culminate with a cabaret performance on Sept. 8.

Repertoire and chord make-up characterize the barbershop sound, as well as the stagecraft accompanying each song. Expect patriotic, folk and popular songs emphasizing traditional American values. Individual quartets or choruses then add embellishments, ad libs and interpretations in the four-part arrangements, always sung a cappella (without accompaniment).

A ‘barbershop soul’

Cindy Shook is the continuous presence in QCC’s history. She is the most senior member of the organization, having joined in 1974, and she is marking her 25th year as the chorus’ conductor. A nurse practitioner at Teen Health Connection at Levine Children’s Hospital, Shook is passionate about this unique musical form and has what is sometimes described as a “barbershop soul.”

“I love choral singing, but I don’t want just to stand on a riser stiffly and sing,” she said. “I think singing can be more than that. You have to move to sell a song. Barbershop singing allows you to do that. It’s a different style of singing, with different techniques. That doesn’t mean that other types of singing are any better or worse. But this is what I love. It’s in my bones.”

Like most of her singers, Shook, a minister’s daughter who had previously sung only in church, recognized that her deep voice wasn’t solo quality. But she discovered her niche the minute she was introduced to barbershop harmony. “Regardless of your vocal range, you can find a part that’s comfortable for you,” she said. Reading music helps but is not required. Solo voices are likewise unnecessary, although one is expected to be able to match pitch (“carry a tune”).

Shook said any woman – of any age – who wants to join and is willing to learn the music and routines should be given a chance. In addition to QCC’s 50 regular rehearsals a year, singers are given CD tracks and online tools to help them memorize, and seasoned members are available to coach newer singers who might be having trouble.

Rehearsals begin with vocal and physical warm-ups, including dancing. Then there are memorization exercises, which might include members of each of the four vocal parts lining up in rows and being brought forward at random to sing a portion of the current repertoire in quartets. Shy, faint-hearted songbirds quickly learn to get over their timidity; everyone is put on the spot sooner or later. As a result, the laughter flows freely throughout the evening.

“These call-outs can be intimidating at first, but all the criticism is really done with kindness and good humor,” Wittebort said. “It’s all designed to raise the bar and make us all better.”

Choreographer and management team leader Deanna Curulla keeps everyone on their toes. Before a performance she gives chorus members individual evaluations of their execution of the routines. “One of the key elements of barbershop singing is to keep emotion in your face and your body active,” Wittebort said.

On a ballad like “Danny Boy” or “How Deep Is The Ocean,” or a hymn like “It Is Well With My Soul,” the emphasis is on conveying emotion. On a show tune like “Make ‘Em Laugh,” the movements are pure slapstick. On other songs such as “We Are Family,” “I Had Someone Else Before I Had You” and “You Can’t Hurry Love,” the women execute hand and body gestures that underscore the lyrics.

‘Build, improve, diversify’

Shook believes QCC is at a crossroads.

“Either you’re growing and improving, or you’re stagnating. We’re a good chorus right now, but we want to build, improve and diversify,” she said. Five guest singers will join QCC for a few songs at its Sept. 8 performance as they test the musical waters for possible membership, and more guests are invited to sing at the group’s Christmas show, as well.

Barbershop singing at Queen Charlotte’s level demands precision, a resonant sound, dynamic expression and showmanship – all criteria upon which Sweet Adelines are judged during periodic contests. The international body’s philosophy is based upon education through competition.

“We work very hard to learn good vocal technique,” said Shook, who was designated by Sweet Adelines as a Master Director in 1994. One comment we get often is ‘Y’all look like you’re having such a good time.’ But it’s also important to sound good. Competitions measure how well we’re teaching our craft.”

Therefore, chorus members are expected to nail their voice part from memory – lead (usually the melody), tenor (the highest vocal line), baritone or bass – and they must learn movements to interpret the lyrics. Before being allowed to perform in public, each member must qualify in front of a panel of her peers to prove she knows the music and the choreography of every song.

Sweet Adelines holds regional contests every spring, and only the winner of each region advances to the annual international competition. As winner of the Blue Ridge Region, comprising the Carolinas, Virginia and Tennessee, QCC has earned the right to compete at the international level five times under Shook’s leadership.

“It can be hard work, but we don’t apologize for wanting quality,” Shook said. “When we weed singers out, we do so reluctantly, but we give them all the tools necessary to learn the music and how to sell the product.You may have the notes down cold, but if you’re not expressive, all eyes go to you. So animation on the stage is crucial.”

‘Harmonize the world’

From the members’ standpoint, QCC fills a musical and social void in their lives. The camaraderie is evident.

“Sweet Adelines has been a constant in my life for almost 30 years,” said Becky Wilkins, who moved from another chapter in Texas and “automatically found a bunch of friends” in QCC.

Sharon Brendle praises the group for “keeping my brain working. As you age, memorizing gets harder, but learning these songs keeps me on my toes mentally as well as physically.”

Shook, drawing upon her medical training, adds that “singing makes you live longer, too, because it increases your lung capacity and gives you a healthier outlook overall.”

Funding for the volunteer-administered QCC comes primarily from ticket sales. In addition to performing several times a year as a full ensemble, QCC also has several quartets available for hire.

Queen Charlotte Chorus members are eager to carry their message of harmony to the entire Queen City.

As Sweet Adelines’ official song says, “Sing a song to your neighbor, he’ll start humming along. Sing a song to a stranger, soon he’ll join in the song. Music spreads harmony.Harmonize the world!”

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